Kamala Harris presses India’s Modi gently on human rights in historic meeting

WASHINGTON —

Vice President Kamala Harris invoked her familial ties to India as she gently pressed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on human rights during a history-making meeting Thursday between America’s first vice president of Indian descent and the leader of a country that has become an increasingly close ally.

Harris, during public remarks at her ceremonial office before the closed-door session, told Modi that as democracies around the world are under threat “it is imperative that we defend democratic principles and institutions within our respective countries.”

“I know from personal experience and from my family of the commitment of the Indian people to democracy,” she said, “and the work that needs to be done [so that] we can begin to imagine, and then actually achieve, our vision for democratic principles and institutions.”

The remarks marked a subtle change from the Trump administration’s unquestioned fidelity to the populist Modi, who has presided over an increase in religious polarization in his country, with more laws targeting religious minorities, including its large Muslim population, as well as attacks on non-Hindus.

Despite the mild pressure, the two leaders shared warm words, including praise from Harris for India’s role in producing COVID-19 vaccines for the world. Modi thanked Harris for offering a “sense kinship” during the country’s coronavirus epidemic this spring. He invited Harris to visit his country and told her that Indians are “waiting to welcome you”. Harris, who was in Southeast Asia last month, didn’t immediately agree to go.

The public discussion of about 15 minutes attracted more attention, including a large press contingent from India, than typical meetings between heads of state and vice presidents. Harris’ mother was from India. Indian Americans make up one of the fastest-growing groups in America, with more than 4,000,000 people.

Modi didn’t speak out about his desire for more U.S. visas for Indians but it is on his agenda. Harris and Modi also talked about their goals to combat COVID-19 and climate change, and to strengthen the strategic alliance.

India has become a closer ally in recent years as American presidents from both parties have recognized the country’s strategic importance in countering China’s growing military and financial power.

Modi is scheduled to meet with President Biden on Friday and then separately again with Harris and Biden in meetings of the so-called Quad, which also includes Japan and Australia.

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